TUCSON, Ariz. — On the night before she was shot through the head during a political event outside a supermarket, Gabby Giffords went on a 10-mile ride on one of her favorite trails.
It didn’t matter if it was pitch black or cold — or if she were juggling calls she had missed while on the plane from Washington, D.C., or preparing to meet with constituents the next day. She would do all that, and then go for that bike ride.
“She has a passion for her bicycle, I’ll tell you that,” said Raoul Erickson, a longtime friend of the Democratic three-term congresswoman who had gone riding with her that night.
The next day, on Jan. 8, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was critically injured in a massacre that killed six people and wounded 12 others outside a Safeway in Tucson. The 22-year-old gunman had been bent on targeting her since meeting her at similar event in 2007.
The shooting rocked Tucson and the nation, resulting in an outpouring of support for Giffords and the other victims that has taken the form of thousands of candles, cards, balloons and bouquets across the southern Arizona desert city. But for one segment of the community, pedaling their bicycles in honor of the victims has been the start of their healing process.
Word that Giffords loved to ride her custom-made bike up and down Tucson’s bike boulevards and trails spread like wildfire across cycling blogs and through Facebook and Twitter posts.
While many people had never met Giffords, much less went on a ride with her, she’s considered part of a loose-knit group that ranges from die-hard racers clad in spandex to weekend warriors and commuters who push the pedals to get to work.
For the past two Tuesdays, cyclists have shown up en masse outside the hospital where she remained in serious condition, along with hundreds of other supporters.
The 2-mile vigil ride from the University of Arizona campus takes less than 15 minutes, but organizer Damion Alexander said there’s a lot to think about in that short time.
“The word ’community’ is what it’s all about. We are a bike community,” Alexander said. “This gives us an opportunity to share and do something positive. What happened was awful. It’s so sad. And whenever something bad happens, you have an opportunity to be brought down by it or to look at how you can lift up the spirits and make it a better place to live.”
Inside the hospital, Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, has been keeping his own vigil. He told ABC’s Diane Sawyer in an interview that aired Tuesday night that he believed for about 20 minutes that his wife was dead after seeing a mistaken television news report.
“I just, you know, walked into the bathroom, and you know, broke down,” he said. “To hear that she died is just, it’s devastating for me.”
Kelly said he later learned that she was alive when he called Giffords’ mother, who was outside the operating room.
From Giffords’ husband to the cyclists and the millions of people following her recovery, all are hopeful she will return to her office — and to her old life, including the bike trail.
Waiting at home for her is a custom bike she ordered built last year by Dave Bohm, the owner of Tucson-based Bohemian Bicycles.
He explained that it was more than the sum of its parts, with an Arizona flag emblazoned across the top tube and Giffords’ name painted on the frame to look like rope. A slew of Arizona cattle brands covers the bike’s steel tubes.
It fits her personality, Bohm said.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen, but I hope to hell she’s on the bike soon enough,” he said. “If I have to, I’ll make her a set of training wheels. I’ll do it. I’ll do whatever she needs to get her back on it.”
Giffords, a member of the bipartisan Congressional Bike Caucus, has also been known to ride from her home in Washington, D.C., to the Capitol building.
For Giffords, riding has been about feeling the breeze, getting away and having a little bit of fun, Erickson said.
As they pedal, there was no talk about politics — just random conversation that spans hiking plans, old car restorations and snakes along the bike trail.
After their ride the night before the shooting, it was off to their favorite Thai restaurant for dinner. Never did Erickson dream he would be getting a call from Giffords’ mother the next morning.
“I started crying,” said Erickson, who has known Giffords and her family for about 15 years. “I had to gather myself and go pick up her father. Totally tragic. My thoughts were depression, upset, who knows.”
For Bohm, numbness set in after he heard his friend had been shot.
Giffords’ family, friends and the rest of the cycling community are confident she’s going to recover.
Tucson resident Martha Retallick took a detour from her bicycle commute Tuesday night to see the memorial outside the hospital. She met Giffords years ago before the congresswoman began her political career, but never had the chance to ride with her.
“I’ve biked in all 50 states, but I haven’t biked in Washington, D.C.,” she said. “I’d like to do that some time, and why not go with Gabby? I hope that will still be possible.”